I had my magician-knowledge. I learned from the land. And now it was time to put it to use. I did so with vigor, relentlessly.
The first trip was a simple, summertime affair. I took several of my students from the temple and we camped in a grassy field. This was nothing new; we had done outdoor retreats before. But this time, there was no tent. No fire-pit. Not even an official campsite.
I showed them how to find a place that would be naturally low-mosquito. We created a place for a fire and I began to teach them how to use a bowdrill. After we ate, we didn’t get out soap to do dishes. Natural materials sufficed.
We spread our sleeping bags on trampled grass. Surrounded by cricket song and tall prairie plants, we drifted off to sleep with nothing over our heads and no one buzzing in our ears.
The next such trip was not so idyllic. It was the most challenging experience I had ever thrown at my students.
In late March or early April, we parked our cars on the road and hiked through knee-deep snow to a secluded, wooded location. We had:
- No tents
- No food
- A knife and a hatchet apiece
- Five hours to create shelter before sunset
I could tell how nervous everyone was. The snow was a surprise; it had fallen the night before. We had the clothing for it, but hiking through it was exhausting.
Finally, we came to a place that looked no different from any other, except that I had scouted it and knew it well. I found a downed tree and showed my students the basics of building a debris shelter, or as I lovingly call it, a den. Heaping up pine boughs and armfuls of leaves onto frames of fallen branches, the structures slowly took shape.
The group of us built four of them: one built like an upright hut (too windy), one built like a tunnel (that was mine, pretty cozy), one that was more like living underground (worked quite well), and one that was too poorly constructed and had to be abandoned.
With an hour or so of sunlight left we successfully killed and butchered a porcupine, which would be our food for two of the next three days.
Often people ask what porcupine tastes like. It tastes delicious, like beef with a slight fishy flavor—but it’s not the flavor you have to worry about, it’s getting those quills off. We sustained a few punctures but managed to skin and cook her safely.
This kind of trip is a real dividing point for people. It was brutally hard, not because it has to be but because we were new. Think of how you did the first time you rode a bike. Now apply that same learning curve to living in the snow with nothing.
Some people, even seemingly adventurous people, will run away at that point. It’s scary. But unlike in my tent in the rain, I was no longer terrified. I didn’t feel a burden of leadership crushing down on me. Instead, leadership was a privilege—the chance to teach these worried, tired people that they can make a cottage with their bare hands. They can shape sticks and leaves into a base camp, and food will wander up for their usage.
That is magician-knowledge: the power to make something from nothing. The power to rest easy outdoors where people in tents would be shivering and fighting off frostbite.
Then it was time for the greatest challenge: outside with no equipment in Minnesota in January.
For those of you not familiar, Minnesota routinely gets temperatures of -10 to -35 (with wind chill) in January. This isn’t recess ladies and gentleman. Fingers can be lost. It’s do or die.
Although a debris shelter would work, getting the debris out from under the snow would be vicious. This time we planned to erect those most miraculous of structures, snow caves.
A snow cave is more or less like your childhood snow fort, with a couple crucial design overhauls:
- The door needs to be narrow and face downwind.
- The entry tunnel should dip down and back up again before you reach the inner chamber—this traps heat inside.
- There must be a bed of sticks (pine boughs preferred) so you are not sleeping directly on the snow.
It was #3 that condemned us to failure.
After spending an afternoon building our very first snow caves, we cooked our meals and wriggled inside. There were five of us total, divided between two caves. When we first got inside, it was blissful.
So warm it felt okay to remove our hats and gloves.
But it didn’t last. In our race against sunset, we had gathered too few branches to put on the floor. What we had gathered was devoid of pine needles and, in many cases, covered in ice.
We were sleeping directly on snow with no insulating layer. (Note: your sleeping bag is not an insulating layer in this case.)
The heat drained out of our bodies. We began to shiver violently. Wrapping arms around each other, we made an effort to huddle for warmth, but to no avail. As long as we were on a slab of packed snow we were headed straight toward hypothermia.
With reluctance, I agreed we should bug out. Exiting our snow cave a few hours after sunset, we trudged to the nearby farmhouse. I saw the geese watching us as we walked by, their wings outstretched in the wicked wind like it was nothing. I swallowed the bitter taste of defeat (or the taste of learning) and we made ourselves cozy by the fireplace of our friend’s farm.
Again, this is a dividing moment. Most people at this point will decide, for life, that snow caves are no good.
It takes a special type of mind to look at failure, dive back in and ask, “How can we do it right?”
Thankfully, I try to surround myself with such minds. After discussing our design failures, we built a new snow cave. This one featured a longer entranceway and more interior space (just for comfort). Most importantly, it featured lush, thick layers of pine branches forming a sort of natural mattress on the floor.
As night fell, one other intrepid soul and myself crawled in. We laid down.
Felt really good!
“Hey,” I said, “Do you think we should take our coats off?”
We did. It was warm enough to put them aside. In fact, it stayed above 50 degrees all night in there, with no heat source other than our own bodies. We slept peacefully—some of the best rest I’ve ever gotten. It soothes me just to think about it.
In addition to our night of warmth, we ran some tests. We checked to see what works better: removing coats to huddle together, or keeping coats on to maximize insulation (under these circumstances, keep your coat on). We checked to see if someone walking on the roof will collapse a snow cave (answer: two people jumping on it may not collapse it) and whether it’s possible to dig out from a collapse (yes, at least enough to make an airhole and then rest before working your way out).
It was one of the most amazing educational experiences I’ve undergone.
I’ve titled this series Enkidu for a reason. Many of you may know that Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s best friend and companion. More than that, he was a wild man, raised by animals. Gilgamesh had to have him civilized in order to stop him from raiding the farmers. Once he was civilized the two went on great adventures together.
On his deathbed, Enkidu forsook the goddess who had civilized him. In his final moments he missed the birds and wild beasts and running where he would. He regretted choosing the luxuries of civilization over the freedom of the wild.
There is a part of Enkidu in all of us. Humankind was wild and nomadic far longer than settled and agricultural. Society wants us to be civilized so that we won’t cause trouble—but a part of us will always regret it.
This is true of computer programmers, New Yorkers and stay at home moms. This is true even if you’re out of shape or afraid of bugs. We are evolved to live in the wild, roam over long distances and go where we please. That is an impulse that still burns away in all of us.
In the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh was able to defeat terrible monsters only with the help of his wild friend. I would humbly suggest that we all need Enkidu to overcome our greatest challenges; without contact with the wilderness, we are doomed to a vague sense of being caged, unfulfilled, or held back.
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